title photo: On January 13, 2013, an unusual bird was discovered in Queen's Park, New Westminster. It was a red-flanked Bluetail, another mega-rarity for Canada.

Rare Bird Encore

Mega rarities like the Citrine Wagtail don't happen very often - maybe once or twice every decade. So what's the odds of having two first-ever birds in Canada at the same time? Maybe not quite as high as the chances for winning the Lotto, but it's up there somewhere. When did it happen last? Would you believe yesterday? While the Citrine was still being reported in the Comox Valley on January 13, 2013 a female Red-flanked Bluetail was discovered at Queen's Park in New Westminster. Like the Citrine, the Red-flanked was the first-ever sighting in Canada, and it has attracted birders and naturalists from all over North America as well as its share of media attention.

The Red-flanked Bluetail is a small bird about the same size as our common junco. It breeds in northern Europe and Asia from Finland to Siberia and winters in southeast Asia in countries like Taiwan and Japan. It is a member of the flycatcher family, and it's typical behavior is to fly from low perches to snatch insects from the ground. Queen's Park is an ideal habitat as it has a large forested area with completely open ground under the trees. There was lots of room for the Red-flanked to forage from low branches, stumps, and logs. That also meant that there was great viewing for the scores of birders, photographers, curious onlookers, and the media.

I had to chain myself to the house to restrain myself from making a trip over just to see the bird. I even quietly wished that it would leave so the temptation would be removed. But, as fate would have it, the bird was on an extended vacation at Queen's Park, and I had to go to the mainland on February 2 for a family matter. That was my window of opportunity. I was able to schedule my activiites to allow for about three hours to do the twitch at Queen's Park. I arrived at about 11:15 am and wasn't thrilled to find the park engulfed in a thin blanket of fog. (It was sunny just up the hill!) Within minutes I spotted a few people pointing cameras, scopes, and binoculars into the shadows of the giant firs. When my eyes finally adjusted to the darkness I spotted the bird flitting to the ground from a low branch. Before I could focus the camera, it disappeared. A few minutes later I spotted it behind me. I was able to focus on it and pressed the shutter. My camera was set at ISO 800 and f6.3, but when I heard the sluggish "cliiiiick" I knew the camera was too slow. At ISO 1000 the pictures were still a blur. ISO 1200 wasn't much better. I finally bumped the ISO to 1600 and was happy to get a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. That was too slow for action shots but reasonable if the bird was sitting still away from the shadows.

It's not unusual to encounter familiar faces when I'm twitching a rare bird, and today was no exception. Even though there were only a half dozen people there, the first people I ran into were Mark W. and his wife. (I first met Mark at the Black-tailed Gull twitch in Courtenay about 5 years ago.) The second person I met was Debra who used to work at Reifel. Thanks to steady work in the film industry (Supernatural?) she now has time for bird photography. For the next hour I enjoyed the company of my fellow birders and the Red-flanked as it foraged around the northwest of the picnic shelter. Every once and awhile it would disappear, but it seemed to stay within a radius of about 50 meters of the shelter. Invariably someone would spot it perched on a low branch or twig where it would sometimes sit still for about a minute affording some decent photo opportunities. Occasionally it would land near the edge of the forest where the lighting was better. Several times it landed close enough for almost full-frame photos, but in most cases Murphy's Law applied, and there would be a branch or twig preventing a clear shot or the lighting would be poor.

I hated to leave when my time was up. There's always something magical when you're in the presence of a confiding bird, and I would have stayed all day if I could. Even if it's one of my backyard chickadees sitting next to my hand waiting for me to fill the feeder there's that indescribable sense wonderment and communion with nature. I was pleased with my hour and a half visit with the Red-flanked. I had many reasonable views, taken over 200 pictures, and had a leisurely chance to study the bird's habits and behaviour. Like I always say, it only takes one good picture to make my day, and the Red-flanked Bluetail certainly made my day.

Yes, I heard about another rare bird in Oregon. I think itís an Asian vagrant called the Little Bunting. No, I have no intention of chasing it, and I don't think I have any family or contacts in the area, although I think Mike K. from Nanaimo lives in Corvallis ... Oregon is too far, but if you find another rare bird in the Comox Valley or Campbell River, please let me know. Apparently there are now three Brambling's in southwest B.C. Victoria, Vancouver, and Sunshine Coast so keep your eyes open.

The Red-flanked spent a lot of time perched on low branches, twigs, stumps, logs, and structures where it watched for small insects and invertebrates. Whenever it disappeared it showed up again on one of its favorite perches. This is a well-cropped distant shot.

For the most part the Red-flanked was quite busy as most of it's prey was minute. It would take a lot of tiny insects to make a decent meal. However, occasionally it would sit and rest for a few minutes. Even after we had our fill of pictures on this tree root it rested for another minute or two before resuming its foraging.

Point blank range! Finally the Red-flanked landed 20' from me in decent light. You guessed it. Murphy's law kicked in and there was a branch in the way.

With the drifting fog and the darkness of the forest, I had to shoot at 1600 ISO. Lighting was better near the edge of the forest, and the Red-flanked occasionally obliged. Despite the soft-lighting and the high ISO, I was very pleased with some of the photos. I think the soft focus suited the quiet and gentle personality of the bird.

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The Hyacinth Ghost

It was overcast, cold, and dreary while I was stalking the Harrisís Sparrow last month at Hyacinth Park in Victoria. I didn't need to see my breath to know that it was close to freezing. An hour into my monotonous but patient vigil the numbing cold lulled me into escapist stupor, dreaming of a steaming cup of dark-roasted Pike at Starbuckís. My eyes closed momentarily to relish the virtual buzz, but when I opened them I thought I was still dreaming. An almost all-white bird was foraging right in front of me. I had to give my head a shake, and then I realized it was the Hyacinth ghost!

Of course, you donít believe in ghosts, and neither do I, but it's always a shock to see an unusual white bird. I know I posted this bird in my last journal, but I never took the time to try to explain the phenomena to the many people who have sent me emails about strange "white" birds. I'm taking the opportunity right now to give my best explanation. In this case the partially white bird was as a leucistic Fox Sparrow. How did I know? Well, if it was the same size and shape as a Fox Sparrow, then it was probably a Fox Sparrow. Size and shape is often more reliable than colour in identifying birds. The absence of colour on parts of an animal is referred to as leucism which is not uncommon in the animal world. Leucism describes the condition of the lack of melanin (colour or pigmentation) on parts of an animal. It is like a birth defect and not a heredtary condition. On the other hand, albinism is a hereditary condition inherited from the parents. It is a genetic condition that inhibits the production melanin. That means the animal is completely white with eyes that are pink, light blue, or light green. Most albinos have pink eyes because the lack of colour in the iris exposes the blood vessels to give it a pink colouration. However, the light can also expose other structures that may give it a light blue or green look. The Qualicum White Ravens Iíve reported in the past were probably albinos because they were all white with blue eyes. In contrast, their black siblings had dark brown eyes.

Every year I get a few emails from people wondering if theyíve discovered a new species. In most cases the birds were mottled or partially white. A recent email from an observer in Campbell River stated that he saw a bird that looked like robin, but it had white over most of it. I reassured the person that if it was the size and shape of a robin, then it was probably a robin. Another reader from Comox sent me a photo of a white bird foraging with a group of House Sparrows. It was the same size and shape as the House Sparrows. You know what my reply was. Of course, Iím not always right, but the size and shape explanation is correct most of the time.

Based on past emails, leucistic birds seem to be more common than albinistic ones. The only albino photos sent to me were a pair of snow-white Starlings with pink eyes from Black Creek a few years ago. There was no question about their identity since they were the same size and shape as Starlings, and they were hanging out with a Starling flock.

Apparently, there are different definitions for the terms leucistic and albinistic depending on who youíre talking to. However, the one that works best for me is the one Iíve just described.

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A Change of Focus

As mentioned in my last journal, my plans for 2013 include a book on butterflies. Since then I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support offered by all the major experts in the butterfly community. Cris Guppy replied immediately to offer his enthusiatic support and since then, Norbert Kondra and Jon Shepard have also offered to help any way they can. The big news is that that our own island expert entomologist, James Miskelly, is joing me as a co-author and will be constructing distribution maps, assisting with the photography, and vetting the write-ups.

On the technical side of the production, I have my new ISBN number and a quote for the printing cost. Tentatively, I'm aiming for October printing and November release. My decision to only publish a 1,000 copies hasn't changed so it's essential for anyone who wants a copy to pre-order by emailing me. I'm hoping to sell all books directly which means they might not be available in the stores. So far I have orders from as far as Minnesota and Washington.

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Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)


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